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Turkey and Armenia: Hope for the future

The Turkish-Armenian front draws a lot of attention these days. The good news is that Turkey and Armenia are trying to mend their relations. However, the United States is not being helpful and the European Union stands by and watches. Russia, on the other hand, is alert and trying to turn developments to its advantage. Most importantly, Azerbaijan is unhappy.

The ongoing rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is long overdue. The two neighbors, representing two venerable peoples, need to address pending bilateral issues and normalize their relations, while paving the way for a negotiated solution of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. This will enhance stability, security and prosperity in the critical region of the Caucasus.

Therefore, the ongoing Turkish-Armenian dialogue with the formal announcements of an agreement on a “road map” is encouraging and the right path to follow. There will be detractors from all sides who will try to derail the process, but Ankara and Yerevan should stand firm and pursue the path of friendship with tenacity.

Azerbaijan is right and justified to expect, parallel to the process of Turkish-Armenian normalization, an assurance of progress in its dispute over Nagorno Karabagh, specifically withdrawal by Armenia from occupied Azerbaijani territories as a first step. Turkey herself had established this linkage in her foreign policy in 1993 by shutting down the land border following Armenian attacks against Azerbaijan. The occupation continues and it is Turkey’s duty now to persuade Armenia to make conciliatory gestures towards Azerbaijan.

Turkish political leadership should continue to keep in close touch with the Azerbaijani leadership and better inform both the Turkish and Azerbaijani publics about what they are doing with Armenia and why. However, the leadership in Baku must also take care not to disrupt the Turkish-Armenian process. These are delicate times and all parties ought to act with circumspection. Azerbaijan has as much interest and need to maintain good relations with Turkey as Ankara does with Baku.  Returning to the Russian sphere of influence is not a wise alternative for Azerbaijan.  It is also clear that improved relations between Turkey and Armenia could increase the chances of a long-term peaceful solution to the Nagorno Karabagh problem. 

President Obama disappoints
President Obama believes the Armenian narrative of genocide. He has stated that it is his “firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”  He said in Turkey that his views had not changed. In his 24 April proclamation, Obama reaffirmed his recognition of genocide without actually using the term. Both during his visit to Turkey and on April 24, he explicitly called on Turkey to come to terms with the facts of history, that is, the recognition and acceptance of Armenian claims.

Obama’s stance does not augur well for the future of Turkish-American relations. It is one thing to have a personal conviction on a given issue, but it is another thing to allow that personal conviction to dictate a slanted policy toward an important friendly and allied country. Obama claims he is open to dialogue and willing to listen. Yet he is not listening to the Turkish side on the sensitive and highly controversial issue of Armenian claims. Everything regarding this dispute is under contention: events, statistics, documents and the presumed perpetrators. Most significantly, the parties to the case are not in possession of all the facts. It is also ironic that President Obama calls for dialogue on this issue within Turkey where a belated and uneasy debate is in fact taking place rather than on the Armenian side where the subject is sacrosanct, exempt from any discussion.

Having painted himself into a corner, President Obama will constantly be facing an Armenian community pushing and pulling him at every opportunity to deliver on his promises. Such opportunities could arise anytime there are difficulties in ties between Turkey and the United States. Particularly if the Turkish-Armenian “road map” does not work, Obama might find it hard to resist Armenian demands. Moreover, as the Armenian issue is likely to remain on America’s agenda even after a full normalization of relations between Turkey and Armenia, Obama will have to continue to deal with it.   

Given Obama’s position, we should not expect him to play a significantly positive role in the dialogue between Turkey and Armenia. The President is unlikely to change his views on the matter. However, he can and must exert his influence in favor of the resolution of the Nagorno Karabagh conflict. That would be how he can contribute to the Turkish-Armenian rapprochement. 

What should Turkey do?
Turkey’s strategic goal ought to be the normalization of its ties with Armenia and the establishment of diplomatic relations. The prevention of a Congressional resolution or keeping the US President from using the “G” word is a separate and secondary consideration. Ankara should focus more on Yerevan than on Washington, Brussels or Moscow. Undoubtedly, if Turkey and Armenia succeed in opening an era of mutual friendship, it will weaken the hands of the proponents of Armenian claims and strengthen the hands of those who favor reconciliation between the two peoples through dialogue in the context of a collaborative examination of historical evidence in all the relevant archives. Turkey should therefore continue to stand behind its proposal of establishing a joint commission to deal with the historical issues.

The pursuit of good neighborly relations with Armenia is the only wise and logical option. Nevertheless, it is not at all an easy undertaking. There are historical, legal, and political issues to deal with. Turkey must not only address its own concerns, but also make certain that the interests of Azerbaijan are not harmed. It is a complex process. The normalization effort will have zealous detractors everywhere. There will be difficulties. Armenian side has on all previous attempts negated and withdrawn from talks with Turkey. Erivan may well do so again. The success of the process will ultimately depend on the political leaders. What we need from our political leaders in Turkey is steadfast adherence to the “road map” while conducting an effective public diplomacy campaign as the process continues.